|Bucks open second half with showdown vs. Celtics|
With his high-profile All-Star Weekend now complete, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and his pals on the Milwaukee Bucks, will still have national exposure Thursday when the post-break schedule opens with a visit from the Boston Celtics.
The Eastern Conference-leading Bucks (43-14) will enter the nationally-televised contest having won 14 of their last 16 games and eight of their last nine. The Celtics, fourth in the conference at 37-21, have won 12 of their last 15 games and have taken two straight after a mini two-game skid.
Antetokounmpo's hand-picked All-Star team lost to one selected by LeBron James, but there is no shame in that for the MVP candidate who is scoring 27.2 points per game, seventh best in the NBA.
He figures to remain on a high after scoring 38 of his team's 164 points in 27 minutes of the All-Star Game, while grabbing 11 rebounds and handing out five assists. What was his takeaway?
"Watching great players play, like all of them, all of the players from both teams and just seeing the mentality... their demeanor and everything," Antetokounmpo said postgame. "(It's) the way they carry themselves. I feel like that for a young man that wants to become great, it's really important."
Being squarely in the races for MVP, a No. 1 playoff seed out of the Eastern Conference and a deep run into the playoffs will help Antetokounmpo's profile and assist a Bucks team that is something of the new kid on the block of championship contenders.
Milwaukee has advanced out of the first round of the playoffs just once since the 1988-89 season, making the East finals in 2000-01.
The Celtics know all about deep playoffs runs, both in their history and with their current cast. They advanced to the East finals in each of the past two seasons under coach Brad Stevens.
But Boston limped into the All-Star break playing its final game on Feb. 13 without Aron Baynes (foot) and Kyrie Irving (knee), while Terry Rozier and Robert Williams were both out because of illness. The Celtics still defeated the Detroit Pistons 118-110.
Despite a run of success since the start of the calendar year, the Celtics continue to push for more.
"We realize that we've played pretty well in the past month and a half, although there have been multiple days where it sure hasn't felt like it," Stevens said.
After missing the last two games, and being inactive six times in 11 games since Jan. 23, Irving played 24 minutes in the All-Star Game. He had 13 points, nine rebounds and six assists for Team LeBron, taking the action right at Team Giannis.
While most embraced the fun and freewheeling nature of the game, Irving used it as a little bit of a test run for the next phase of the schedule. He said he is more than ready to face the Bucks on Thursday.
"I'm happy. I'm very happy," Irving said, according to Celtics.com. "My strength and conditioning coach, my training staff, every single day it's just been great communication with them, making sure that I'm good to play in the game.
"We understand that it's the All-Star Game, but to go up and down before Thursday comes ... shoot, I'd be a lot worse if I didn't play in this game and then go out on Thursday and have that be my first time playing in about basically two weeks."
Williams could be ready to go for Thursday's game, but Baynes will sit out Boston's three-game road trip, while guard Rozier remains day-to-day. Forward Gordon Hayward is questionable Thursday after spraining his ankle during a workout on Tuesday, though Stevens said the injury is not "a long-term thing."
Antetokounmpo is dealing with right knee soreness but is expected to play. New-arrival Nikola Mirotic plans to make his Bucks debut, as the forward missed his first four games after being acquired by trade, due to a calf injury. Guard Donte DiVincenzo (heel) will not play Thursday.
--Field Level Media